By Wally Kennedy
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Cleta Mills loves the rush of tax season. Ever since the first time she pushed a pencil on paper and worked out refund amounts 27 years ago, she learned how to channel the rush of adrenaline that comes from the mad pace of 12-hour days with barely any breaks.
"If you don't love the job, this can be very miserable," Mills said. "I love doing taxes, meeting clients and helping them. It's just a feeling I get, knowing I've helped a person get through this."
That feeling is the ultimate reward for the tax preparers who are working like crazy right now.
But this year, that reward is delayed -- or in some cases, absent.
Gridlock in the nation's capital is making for some long days and nights for local tax preparers -- not to mention some unhappy taxpayers.
"I've been a tax preparer for 27 years for H&R Block," said Mills, a preparer for H&R Block in Webb City. "It's the roughest year I've seen for tax returns going through. This is impacting people directly, a whole bunch of people."
People who would normally expect to get their return by the end of January are having to wait much longer. Others are filing electronic returns with the intention of later amending that return with a paper filing.
"This is because the IRS, our congressmen and the president got nothing signed into effect until after the first of the year," she said. "They didn't open the doors to file electronically until Jan. 30. We couldn't file for the education credit until Feb. 14. Depreciation schedules opened after the 14th of February."
The adoption credit is not even open yet, she said.
"We have clients waiting for those forms to come through to file," she said.
The situation is making a frenzied time of year even more hectic for tax preparers, who spend the "off-season" studying new tax laws and assisting clients with extensions, audits or other tax matters.
When the first of the year rolls around, their schedules go into high gear, with extra hours and plenty of extra work. Tax preparers and accountants go to work early in the day and go home late at night.
Breaks don't happen often. Mills said she and her co-workers start a Crock-Pot dish of some sort in the mornings, and everyone takes what time they can to grab a bite.
This year's complications have forced tax preparers to cram their work into a much shorter time frame than they would normally have.
"It's compressed the time we have to file returns for people," said Dody Walker, with Vern Blood Tax Service in Joplin. "It's very, very condensed. Every year before now, we had a chart we could give to people that showed if their return was accepted by the IRS on this date you could expect to get your return on this date.
"We don't get those charts anymore. So, your guess is as good as mine," she said. "People look at us and ask when they can expect their return. We tell them: 'We can't tell you.' They ask: "Why not?' We tell them the IRS situation is completely out of our control.
"And heaven help you if your return is pulled for some reason or if they ask for additional verification. That could take another three to six weeks," she said.
Because there is so much identity fraud and theft, the IRS is taking its time this year to examine more closely the credits that are being claimed by individual taxpayers.
"They're cracking down on mileage," she said. "If you don't have a mileage log, if you don't have something written down, we can't do it. We tell people that if they keep good records, they don't have to worry. But if everything they are claiming is not legitimate, they should be nervous.
"If a person is expecting a return, we tell them: 'Don't spend it until you have got it.'"
Jim Hardy, with Hardy, Wrestler and Associates in Joplin, said, "The problem is our inability to finish a lot of tax returns because the IRS is not ready to accept the forms. It's a fly in the ointment that creates a backlog you can't clear out."
More work, less time
The changing of forms and policies within the IRS is affecting both individuals and businesses. Hardy said the majority of the accounting firm's work involves business clients who might have investment properties and partnerships where depreciation schedules are factors. Those depreciation schedules have been held up.
This has translated into overtime work for tax preparers and extra diligence in keeping abreast of what Congress is doing and when they do it.
"Last year was an unusual year because of the tornado victims and their losses," he said. "We are planning for 2013 now to see how the changes in law will affect our clients."
Hardy said he spends about four hours a week staying current on tax law.
"For planning issues, you have to stay informed the best you can. That's what our clients pay us for," he said.
The success for many tax-preparation businesses is their ability to get a taxpayer's return filed accurately and in a reasonable amount of time.
"The biggest issue this year are the delays," Walker said. "We make our living by getting people in here and getting their returns done as quickly as we can. When we can't do that, it hurts our business."
And one of the best parts of being a tax preparer, Mills said -- helping a client get a refund -- gets delayed.
"It has been a letdown to clients," Mills said. "When we know they need the money, and we can't help them get their refund back, it's a letdown."